The Darién Scheme

Scotland’s one and only attempt at colonisation resulted in thousands of deaths and an economic disaster that paved the way for the 1707 Act of Union.


The seventeenth century witnessed an explosion in European power, as the empires of Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain began to expand across the globe. Seeking new lands to conquer, native peoples to convert to Christianity and untold riches to plunder, the Europeans set about colonising the Americas. Towards the end of the century, the Kingdom of Scotland decided that this was an opportunity too good to miss, and embarked on the ambitious but potentially lucrative project of taming, occupying and administrating the untraversable land of the Darién Gap. Had they chosen almost any other location for their scheme, placed authority in the hands of worthier leaders, or simply anticipated some of the obstacles they would encounter, the venture might have been a success. As it was, Scotland’s one and only attempt at colonisation ended in death, debt and disaster, crippling the economy and leading to the 1707 Act of Union with England.

At the very start of the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers Vasco Núñez de Balboa and Alonso de Ojeda voyaged to Colombia, where they were based at the Gulf of Urabá. The gulf lies close to the Isthmus of Panama, which connects the continents of North and South America. In 1508, a royal decree made the Atrato River the border that separated the isthmus, which became the Governorate of Castilla de Oro, from the southern area of Nueva Andalucía.

A few years later, the town of Panamá was established on the Pacific coast, giving the region new importance as a trading hub and administrative centre for the Spanish in South America. Over the following decades the isthmus was variously part of the Duchy of Veragua, Royal Veragua and finally the Province of Veragua, and accruing a vast array of assets and establishments, such as the Academy of Panama, as well as an international reputation.

The increasing significance of the Americas on the world stage during the seventeenth century led Dutch cartographer Arent Roggeveen to compile a series of large-scale charts showing the coastline of North and Central America in the mid-1660s. Drawing heavily on the Spanish portolans available to him as an employee of the Dutch East and West India Companies, Roggeveen produced the first work to show the entire coastline of North America and the Caribbean. Also included in his ‘Het Brandende Veen’ was a chart of the Darién Gulf on the southern part the Panamanian coast, focusing on the Gulf of Urabá and identifying a number of coastal settlements such as Cape Tiburón (item 1).

In the subsequent decades, a growing number of voyages were made to the region, including by Welsh explorer and privateer, Lionel Wafer. Wafer sailed to the South Seas several times throughout the 1670s, and in 1680 was recruited to join an expedition to Central America. Following an injury during this trip, he was left with four others on the Isthmus of Darién, where he was cared for by the native Cuna Indians before leaving the following year disguised as one of them.

After making it back to England in 1690, he published a book describing his adventures (item 2). His time spent with the Cuna peoples had yielded a great deal of information about the history of the Darién, the culture and language of its inhabitants, and the nature that abounded there. A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America proved so popular that it was later translated into French (1706), German (1759), and Swedish (1789). It also exerted great influence over the people of Scotland, who were beginning to look to the Darién as a solution to their current problems.

The Scottish economy had not prospered during the seventeenth century: famine; invasion; taxation from the Commonwealth; the English Navigation Acts, which limited Scottish trade with the New World; English tariffs; a general lack of key resources; failed harvests; and the Nine Years’ War all contributed to a major financial crisis. Despite these difficulties, the Scottish Estates still refused a proposal from the English Parliament to unite the two nations which, after all, did share the same monarch.

To maintain the independence to which they were so determinedly clinging, the Scots needed a stable economy, and one man who thought he had the answer was William Paterson. Not only had Paterson co-founded and directed the Bank of England, but he had also travelled widely, visiting the Caribbean and Central America in the 1670s. It was there that inspiration had struck.

The narrow stretch of land that connected North and South America (Item 4, inset) was the only barrier between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and thus the only obstacle to open trade between these great bodies of water. Two centuries before the construction of the Panama Canal began, Paterson envisaged a means of transporting goods through the isthmus, so that ships would no longer have to make the dangerous and time-consuming voyage around Cape Horn to get from one ocean to the other.

It is not clear how well-formed these plans were while Paterson remained in the region, but upon his return to London he met Lionel Wafer, the Welsh explorer whose tales of the Darién would capture the imagination of so many. Similarly enamoured by Wafer’s stories, and foreseeing huge profits, Paterson began pitching the so-called Darién Scheme, first to the English Government, then to those of the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic.

He claimed that any nation that could settle a colony in Panama would be able to establish a monopoly over the important overland exchange of goods between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By transporting cargo from one side of the isthmus to the other, in exchange for a healthy fee, they would become a key colonial trading power in the Americas.

After his proposals were rejected by the larger European powers, Paterson turned to the Scots, who were indeed in desperate need of a money-making enterprise that might help them recover economic stability and maintain their independence. Won over by his plans, and also hoping to use this opportunity to become a world trading nation and compete with the English East India Company, the Kingdom of Scotland created the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies in 1695 (Item 5).

There was a great rush from Scots and Englishmen alike to buy shares in the Company, which prompted Parliament, pressured by the East India Company, to threaten the Scottish Company with impeachment. The withdrawal of English investors, however, did nothing to curb enthusiasm for the Darién Scheme, and thousands more Scots from all walks of life poured money into it. Within six months, £400,000 had been raised, around a quarter of the country’s entire economic worth.

The Company seems to have answered a widespread though unvoiced desire among Scots to see their country expand its power and prospects through trade. One anonymous publication of 1696 (item 6), claimed that “considering all the natural Advantages which the Scots have to encourage their Application to Trade, it would strangely reflect upon the Wisdom of the Parliament of that Kingdom…in their having so long neglected to establish, cultivate and promote Trade with a greater Vigour”. The same author also hit back at any would-be detractors of the Darién Scheme, insisting that “the generality of Mankind have conceived a greater Esteem for the Scots East-India Company, and have entertained more favourable Thoughts of its Success than otherwise they would, meerly from the Jealousies you have exprest, and the Opposition you are giving unto it”.

With these statements representing the national attitude towards the Scheme, further plans were launched for an expedition to the Darién. Using the funds raised by public investment, William Paterson purchased and equipped five ships to make the long voyage across the Atlantic, each with a suitably patriotic or noble name: The Unicorn, St Andrew, Caledonia, Dolphin and Endeavour. The inventory included not only weapons in case of attack by the natives or the Spanish, and building tools to construct their new colony, but also all the household items necessary to establish a permanent settlement there.

On 4th July 1698, 1200 emigrants set off from the Port of Leith on the first expedition to the Darién, led by Paterson himself. Four months later they touched down on the land they had renamed New Caledonia.

The Scots set about trying to build themselves a home in the rough, unforgiving landscape, spending the first two months after their arrival clearing enough of the dense jungle to construct Fort St Andrew. It was here that they established their new capital, New Edinburgh, as shown on item 7, labelled B. This anonymous map, presumably made by one of the voyagers, also highlights some of the imposing natural features faced by the would-be colonisers, such as “the dangerous rocks before ye port”, the impenetrable forests and the wildly undulating terrain.

Despite being well-fortified with 50 canons and furnished with the articles brought on the ships, Fort St Andrew proved an inadequate and unsustainable site. For one, there was no supply of fresh water, and when torrential rains hit in 1699, much of the settlement became uninhabitable. The crowded and unhygienic conditions in turn lead to disease, and by the summer of 1699, 10 people a day were dying, including Paterson’s wife and only child.

Added to these challenges was the fact that the Cuna Indians, with whom Paterson had hoped to trade by bringing along a nice stock of mirrors and shiny objects that would surely win over the native tribespeople, had no interest in helping the Scots. On top of this, the English had forbidden trade with the Darién, and in June, one of their ships, out on a mission to seek fresh supplies and make contact with home, had been captured by the Spanish. They discovered that, while the Spanish had not attempted to tame the Darién themselves, they were not about to allow anyone else to do so either.

Despite the frankly disastrous conditions and the looming threat of Spanish action, the settlers of the Darién sent a report back to Edinburgh claiming that their venture was proving fruitful, if challenging, and requesting additional supplies to support the colonial effort. Filled with stories of the growing settlement, promising interactions with the indigenous people, and descriptions of the region’s favourable climate and resources, a pamphlet was produced (item 8) attempting to persuade the English to add their support to the venture too.

People were greatly satisfied with the news that their investment was paying off, but the Church of Scotland still had some sobering advice for their countrymen in Central America:

“There is yet a special Obligation upon you, in the Planting and Erecting of a New Colony, to take Care, that Religion and Vertue be planted and thrive in it. Owe you not this Return to God, who hath brought you thither, and who preserves and prospers you? Owe you it not to your Selves, least you Forseit His merciful Kinduess, and turn it to bitter Displeasure? Owe you it not to the Nation you are come from; to the Gospel you have Received, and Profest, and to the People you are come among: that they receive not Scandal, and ground of Offence against Christianity, form the ungodly Lives of Professed Christians?” (item 9).

While religion and virtue may have been thriving in the Darién, the inhabitants of Fort St Andrew were not. In addition to the daily deaths and their failure to make any significant headway inland, Paterson now received word that the Spanish were planning an attack on the Scottish settlement. This news was the final blow in a series of disappointments and catastrophes, and resulted in the flight of the remaining settlers back to Scotland. The 300 survivors of the long and difficult journey home arrived back on the Caledonia to the unwelcome news that a second expedition to the Darién had already set off, enthused by the reports of their success.

The second ill-fated expedition to the Darién consisted of three ships carrying 1300 passengers, 160 of whom died before even reaching the Isthmus of Panama. Those who did survive the voyage found Fort St Andrew abandoned, and despite some diligent efforts to rebuild it, eventually succumbed to the disease, malnutrition and lack of discipline that had so badly afflicted the initial settlers. They were rallied, however, by the renewed danger of attack from the Spanish, who had been gathering men and galleons just a little way from the Darién Gulf.

In the spirit of Bruce and Wallace, the Scots organised a staunch defence of their settlement, allying with some of the native Cuna to mount a surprisingly effective attack on the assembled Spanish troops. Despite the success of this first phase, however, they then faced an impenetrable naval blockade, forcing the Scots to capitulate to their adversaries after a one-month siege. Following negotiations, the settlers were permitted to return to their homeland, but only a handful ever made it back to Scotland.

Of the 2500 men, women and children that set off for the Darién, a few hundred survived the ordeal, and they were faced with hostility at home from those who believed that they had let their nation down. If misdirected, these feelings of anger are certainly understandable, since the failed scheme had annihilated the life-savings of many ordinary people. As it had been backed by roughly a quarter of the money circulating in the country, the collapse of the Darién Company had a crippling impact on Scotland’s economy.

While the unfortunate returners found themselves ostracised by communities they had left the year before, much of the resentment at the failure of the Darién Scheme was turned towards figures of authority. The Whig journalist, George Ridpath, published a pamphlet aimed at the perceived injustice of the actions of William III, monarch of both Scotland and England. Many Scots felt that the King had injured the venture by refusing to back it publicly: a petition signed by 20,000 people had been sent to William in March 1700 asking him to do so, and a further petition presented to Parliament in May, demanding recognition of the colony. Ridpath compares Scotland’s relationship with the monarchy and government in London to a family. The actions of the king, he writes, have left Scotland like a child “depriv’d of the kindness and protection of one of their parents”, and he appeals to Parliament to redress this wrong (item 10).

In 1702, William was succeeded by Queen Anne, under whom England soon became embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession. In an attempt to raise more troops for this conflict, Queen Anne once again extended a proposal of union to Scotland, offering to pay the £400,000 that the Darién Company had lost. Their resistance weakened by the failure of their expedition to Central America, the Scottish Estates at last accepted the proposal and became part of the United Kingdom under the 1707 Act of Union.

Perhaps because of a sense of duty towards Scotland, Paterson was instrumental in the Act of Union, and one of the last acts of the Scots parliament was to recommend him to the consideration of Queen Anne for all he had done and suffered.

The United Parliament, to which he was returned as a member for the Dumfries burghs, though he never took his seat, decided that his claim for losses due to the Darién Scheme should be settled, but it was not until 1715 that an indemnity of £18,241 was ordered to be paid him. Even then he found considerable difficulty in obtaining his due, and a detailed pamphlet was published to set out the argument against his receiving any compensation (item 11). Paterson’s final years were spent in Queen Square, Westminster, but he removed from there shortly before his death on the 22nd of January 1719 and is believed to be buried in Dumfries.

The consequences of the Darién Scheme did not die with their inventor, however, and resentment at those who had sold Scottish independence to the English resulted in renewed Jacobite uprisings in the early half of the eighteenth century, not to mention numerous satires, caricatures and polemics in all forms. Robert Burns himself bemoaned the Act of Union in one of his most famous verses:

“But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”

Centuries later, another scheme for Scottish colonialism was proposed by a descendant of one of the passengers aboard the Caledonia. Despite what his name might suggest, Gregor MacGregor was not so nice they named him twice. He was in fact a confidence trickster, whose tales of a paradisical settlement on the Bay of Honduras fooled hundreds of Scots into packing up their lives and boarding a ship for Poyais, only to find that the land they had been promised did not exist. When the first would-be colonists arrived in 1823, they found nothing but dense jungle in the place of the foretold opera house and royal palace.

Gregor MacGregor’s nefarious fraud may explain why Dessiou’s chart of the West Indies (item 12) features the toponym “New Edinburgh” over 130 years after the Darién Scheme had established the capital. It is quite possible that the cartographer conflated the latest scheme with its predecessor, and hence marked Paterson’s capital on his chart of the Isthmus.

The continuing importance of the Panama Canal, which has seen almost one million ships pass through its waters, attests to the logic behind the Darién Scheme: control over the Isthmus would indeed have put Scotland in an immensely powerful position on the world stage. Lack of technology, poor planning and leadership, and the trials of disease, food shortages and an alien landscape, however, combined to create a scenario in which success was impossible. To this day, the treacherous land of the Darién has resisted human attempts at cultivation.

The 60 miles stretch between the Atrato Swamp in northern Colombia and the mountainous peaks of southern Panama remains the missing link in the Pan-American Highway which would otherwise allow one to drive continuously from the Alaskan shores of the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego. As impenetrable today as it was when the expedition of Scots arrived on its shores with hopes of a new life, the Darién’s defiance of cultivation and colonisation is testament to the inexorable power of nature.